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What It Means to Eat 'Like a Man' (or Woman)

... and the mental block we need to overcome to eat healthier.

“It behooves a man to drink and eat more, and to eat and drink stronger things...and they leave the the children and the women. Similarly, among the hors d'oeuvres, the charcuterie is more for the men, and later the cheese, especially if it is strong, whereas the crudités are more for the women, like the salad.” — Social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, in his discussion of the social origins of taste (Bourdieu 1984, p.190).

Source: Kzenon/Shutterstock

The way we eat has changed drastically since Bourdieu’s time, but the gendered meanings of foods have changed little. Recent studies demonstrate that North Americans still perceive “lighter” foods as female and “heavy” foods, especially meat, as male (Cavazza, Guidetti, and Butera 2015; McPhail, Beagan, and Chapman 2012; Rothgerber 2013).

Women’s greater preference for “light” food reflects both the instrumental goal of weight loss (McPhail, Beagan, and Chapman 2012; Wardle, Haase, and Steptoe 2004) and the performance of femininity through food choice (Jensen and Holm 1999; Mori, Chaiken, and Pliner 1987). And women eat less when more strongly motivated to present themselves as feminine (Mori, Chaiken, and Pliner 1987).

However troubling, performing femininity by eating delicately is apparently successful. In experimental studies, observers rate consumers of female-identified foods as more feminine, and consumers of male-typed foods as more masculine (Mooney and Lorenz 1997). In addition, observers rate otherwise-identical women more favorably on personal and physical attributes when they believe that the women eat a low-fat diet as opposed to a high-fat diet (Mooney, DeTore, and Malloy 1994). Likewise, participants rate women who eat smaller meals as having greater social appeal (Basow and Kobrynowicz 1993).

Whether we measure eating “lightly” by eating low-fat foods or eating small portions, people perceive women who eat lightly more positively—a finding that has implications for women’s body satisfaction, dieting behavior, and even the frequency of eating disorders (Basow and Kobrynowicz 1993; Mooney, DeTore, and Malloy 1994).

While strongly-held social norms may dictate that women eat “lightly” and select “light” foods, they also dictate that men eat “heavy” foods, particularly meat (Nath 2010; Rothgerber 2013; Vartanian 2015). Male vegetarians and vegans are subject to substantial social censure—and other men question their masculinity (Nath 2010). Their choice to avoid eating meat is a perceived challenge or subversion of conventional masculinity and, as such, meets resistance and ridicule from other men (Nath 2010).

Unfortunately, the association of masculinity with meat-eating counteracts efforts to improve men’s health behaviors by reducing their meat consumption—men may continue to eat meat at least in part because it makes them feel manly, despite their knowledge of the potential health risks (Nath 2010; Rothgerber 2013). As with women’s performing femininity by eating lightly, this strategy may be socially successful for men—again, observers rate meat-eaters as more masculine (Vartanian 2015).

This masculinization of meat also presents itself in individuals’ rationales for eating meat (Rothgerber 2013). Men evoke direct justifications—endorsing pro-meat attitudes, denying animal suffering, and using fatalistic or religious arguments in which other animals are destined to serve humans (Rothgerber 2013).

In contrast, women dissociate animals from food and avoid thinking about animals’ suffering in order to minimize their discomfort with eating meat (Rothgerber 2013). Apparently, gender-socialization influences men and women not only to eat different foods but also to think differently about the foods that they eat.

That our gender influences our choice of fare is perhaps less surprising than consistent findings that the gender of our dining companions also influences what we eat. Yet multiple studies observing diners in restaurants and cafeterias find that women select meals with fewer calories when they eat in the presence of men, as compared to women who eat in all-women groups (Allen-O'Donnell, Cottingham, Nowak, and Snyder 2011; Young, Mizzau, Mai, Sirisegaram, and Wilson 2009). In contrast, there is some evidence that men select meals with more calories when they eat with women, as compared to women and men who eat with only same-gender companions (Allen-O'Donnell, Cottingham, Nowak, and Snyder 2011; but see: Young et al. 2009).

This may reflect the increased salience of gender in mixed-gender groups (Allen-O'Donnell, Cottingham, Nowak, and Snyder 2011) and a desire to present oneself favorably to desirable members of the other sex (Mori, Chaiken, and Pliner 1987). Either way, it encourages unhealthy eating for both genders—women may undereat while men may overeat, and eat more meat than is healthy.

The co-author of this blog posting was Shannon Z. Sheehan, an undergraduate student at the University of Notre Dame. Shannon contributed to the idea for this posting and found some of the sources, including the Bourdieu quotation.

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  • Allen-O'Donnell, Molly, Marci D. Cottingham, Thomas C. Nowak, and Kay A. Snyder. 2011. "Impact of Group Setting and Gender on Meals." Journal of Applied Psychology 41:2268-2283.
  • Basow, Susan A. and Diane Kobrynowicz. 1993. "What Is She Eating? The Effect of Meal Size on Impressions of a Female Eater." Sex Roles 28.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. London: Routledge.
  • Cavazza, Nicoletta, Margherita Guidetti, and Fabrizio Butera. 2015. "Ingredients of Gender-Based Stereotypes about Food. Indirect Influence of Food Type,Portion Size and Presentation on Gendered Intentions to Eat." Appetite 91:266-272.
  • Jensen, K. O'Doherty and L. Holm. 1999. "Review: Preferences, Quantities and Concerns: Socio-Cultural Perspectives on the Gendered Consumption of Foods." European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 53:351-359.
  • McPhail, Deborah, Brenda Beagan, and Gwen E. Chapman. 2012. "I Don't Want to be Sexist But..." Food, Culture & Society 15:473-489.
  • Mooney, Kim M., Joanne DeTore, and Kristin A Malloy. 1994. "Perceptions of Women Related to Food Choice." Sex Roles 31:433.
  • Mooney, Kim M. and Erica Lorenz. 1997. "The Effects of Food and Gender on Interpersonal Perceptions." Sex Roles 36:639.
  • Mori, DeAnna, Shelly Chaiken, and Patricia Pliner. 1987. "'Eating Lightly' and the Self-Presentation of Feminity." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53:693-702.
  • Nath, Jemal. 2010. "Gendered Fare? A Qualitative Investigation of Alternatrive Food and Masculinities." Journal of Sociology 47:261-278.
  • Rothgerber, Hank. 2013. "Real Men Don't Eat (Vegetable) Quiche: Masculinity and the Justification of Meat Consumption." Psychology of Men & Masculinity 14:363-375.
  • Vartanian, Lenny R. 2015. "Impression Management and Food Intake: Current Directions in Research." Appetite 86:74-80.
  • Wardle, Jane, AM Haase, and Andrew Steptoe. 2004. "Gender Differences in Food Choice: The Contribution of Health Beliefs and Dieting." Annals of Behavioral Medicine 27:107-116.
  • Young, Meredith E., Madison Mizzau, Nga T. Mai, Abby Sirisegaram, and Margo Wilson. 2009. "Food For Thought: What You Eat Depends on Your Sex and Eating Companions." Appetite 53:268-271.
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